Category Archives: Brokenness
I had another tough question come in from a friend and spent some time turning it over this morning. I figure if he’s asking, the answer might be useful to someone else too, so to you, dear reader, I offer my response as well:
Your question was, “Can you explain ‘He gives and takes away?’ Since God doesn’t punish, what might he take away?”
That’s a heavy question. It hits a lot of people on a very personal level. It’s also not one that I can give a short, pithy answer to. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever given a short, pithy answer to a theological question. They’re usually wrong.
So, rather than give an answer, I’ll share a bit of thought process.
First, there’s an assumption in the question that God doesn’t punish. There are definitely times in the Bible that God does actively punish, although it’s usually on a national level rather than an individual level. There are some times that God does actively give or bless people in scripture. Let’s hold that in an open hand for a minute.
Second, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” is from Job 1:21. The context of Job is a drama that teaches Jewish people how to respond to struggle and pain. As Job says this, he’s just had three servants come and tell him that he’s lost everything he owns and his family is dead. Job’s response is to acknowledge that he didn’t come into the world with anything, he won’t leave with anything, and God is sovereign over all. He’s saying, “It wasn’t really mine anyway.” This is true. When he says that God took it away, though, he’s wrong. According to the narrative he’s not aware of (irony), Satan took it away with God’s permission as a test – some sort of celestial bet, although God gives permission. So within the immediate context, the statement, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” was wrong, and basing theology off of it is dangerous – as dangerous as basing theology off his friends’ statements that what was happening was his fault and God was punishing him (which was still a very common belief in Jesus’ time).
Third, people want to reduce theology to the simplest possible, most easily digestible form. They want black and white; always and never. What we see in the whole of scripture, though, is “sometimes.” For those who want consistency and certainty, it’s easiest to say “consistently, certainly sometimes.” God is God, and he’s allowed that. What we see is that sometimes God does give. Sometimes God does take away. Most of the time, he lets stuff happen and leaves his justice for later.
So the statement he gives and takes away is accurate. Sort of. Sometimes.
The greater truth is in the heart attitude behind it, though. We remember that God is sovereign. Everything that we have, whether given actively or inherently is from him. I tremendously enjoy the air he gave me to breathe this morning. Someday I’m going to stop breathing it. I go. Everything I have goes. God remains. God is greater than me. God is greater than my stuff. The mini-lesson found in the following verse, what the audience is supposed to get, is that even though Job thinks God is actively responsible (he’s not) is: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
It’s a statement of peace. It means that whatever our circumstances are, God remains, and we find our worth and being in him. Growing resentful or angry at him for our circumstances is sinful. Worshiping him in the midst of pain is glorifying.
What we should be saying as we echo that statement is that it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. God is God and God is Good. He doesn’t stop being God in hard times. It’s what Paul echoes in Phillipians 4:11-13 – “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
So maybe it’s God’s fault and maybe it isn’t. Maybe stuff just happened and he didn’t stop it. We still worship, though, because worship isn’t about us and what we have. It’s not transactional. It’s conversational. It’s relational. It’s about who he is and who we are in him.
I hope that answers your question. If not, bug me more. I’m cool with that.
I haven’t been feeling particularly moved to “blog” lately, but if anyone has any honest questions – not “heh-heh what about this” questions with the intent of trying to trip me up, but honest questions seeking answers, head over to the contact page. I’ll be happy to make posts from them and leave your name out of it.
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
Publishing The Art of Being Broken (coming June 15th, 2015) has been a very different experience than publishing Worshipping Through John. It’s not even out yet and I’m seeing a huge difference. One of the biggest is in my level of attachment to it. WTJ is a devotional book. It’s relatively short, very linear, and wrapped around the simple and specific application of scripture. TAOBB took so much more out of me. It’s my experiences, my (hopefully inspired) thoughts, my prose. It’s felt intimidating to start putting out advance copies to reviewers that don’t have any stock in making me feel good about myself and wait for their unbiased reviews.
Each time that one comes in, posted to Goodreads or Amazon or a blog, I’m unhealthily fixated on the resulting opinion. It can be hard to separate criticism of the book from criticism of myself. It’s not that they’ve been bad. In fact, the worst review to come in is 3 stars out of 5. I still took that hard, but I’m also very aware that I’m finding myself looking at the 5 star reviews for personal affirmation, and that’s not healthy either. I think that a piece of it is that I feel like these reviews are saying whether the past year that I’ve put into this book has been worth it or a waste of time. Even though I say (and believe) that the early readers and editors that have benefited from it make it worth it on their own, and the way I’ve grown through the whole process has been worth it on it’s own, there’s still a piece of me that is looking for outside validation.
So there’s that.
Really, though, this has been a long-winded and roundabout way of saying that reviews are starting to come in. Hopefully as the book launches in mid-June, there will be a solid body of positive reviews and people will buy it and read it and grow closer to God and embrace their brokenness and give me money because of them. So far, it seems that if the reviewers are right, that could well happen.
One thing that’s been made clear already is that some people aren’t going to “get it,” and I need to be okay with that. One review called it “rambling” and questioned my application of scripture. Another, more positive, one said that they had a bit of trouble understanding it because it lacks thesis statements and conclusions to each chapter with application points. Both of those things might be true, depending on your perspective. The Art of Being Broken is intentionally written conversationally and anecdotally, partly because I’m a person that doesn’t really like being told what to do, but if you walk me to it, I can appreciate truth and I think other people are often like that, too. It’s not that it doesn’t have purpose or flow, but that it’s slightly non-linear and doesn’t have point by point application. Every person that reads it is going to pull something a little bit different, and hopefully non-heretical, out of it. They already have. I love to hear about that.
Pastor Floyd Johnson posted a review on his book review blog today that I wanted to share, both because he put an exceptional amount of thought into the review and because it makes the book sound exceptionally good. He says things like:
Even as I read, I found myself recommending the book as I borrowed illustrations included therein.
The book should be required collateral reading for the college or seminary course in pastoral counseling.
the book offers valuable insight into the broken souls we all bring to the cross.
So I wanted to give a link to it and say a public “thank you” for the work he put into the review. I appreciated what he shared of himself, and it gave me some good things to consider as I move toward the launch.
Almost a year ago, it was announced at Cornerstone Wesleyan Church that my position, Pastor of Youth and Worship, was being terminated, and I was not being moved into the newly created position of Pastor of Servant Life and Community development. There was some fallout. Not as much as there likely would be if a senior pastor left, but there were a lot of opinions in the ring after the announcement. It wasn’t a surprise to me—it had been an ongoing discussion at the leadership level for quite a while, and I was given plenty of opportunity for input. I was left in an odd position, though. I still loved the church, I had nowhere else to go, and I felt called to write for a while instead of going straight into the brutality of the pastoral search process.
After a bunch of praying and thinking and talking with my wife, we decided (with approval of the leadership) to continue attending Cornerstone. I’m not sure what I would have done if they had said no… it was a bit awkward all-round. I’m not sure anyone in leadership ever considered saying no. They’re awesome, supportive people. If it was me in their place, though, I would have been hesitant and worried about issues of transition and disturbance, and wondering if I could trust me in the background of the congregation. In the end, I’m glad we did. I think I may have grown more in the year of transition, out of “active” ministry, than I did in the three years before.
These are some things that I learned in the transition:
1. There are people more upset about it than you are.
“I can’t believe how the church treated you…” … “It’s just not right…” … “This is ridiculous…” … “What are they thinking?”
As hard as it is to step away from the role you’ve poured yourself into for years, there’s a certain peace in it. Let’s face it, if you’re in a place spiritually and emotionally that you can continue to attend a church after they’ve
fired you not renewed your contract, you’ve probably left on fairly decent terms. There will be people in the church, though—your advocates, your friends, and sometimes people completely unexpected—that will take greater offense than you. One of the biggest challenges you face immediately after the announcement is dealing with people who want to badmouth the church you love, or vent anger you don’t feel, or vote with their feet and leave.* It’s hard, when you are dealing with some measure of hurt, to be put in the awkward position of defending the church that’s terminating you. Even worse, the angriest people—the ones most likely to leave—are your closest friends, and you can be left feeling even more alone attending church without them.
*I want to make it clear that not everyone who left CWC at this point left because of feelings about me. For some it was directional over removing the youth specialty. For others it was the culmination of feelings that had been building for quite a while. I don’t want to misrepresent them as leaving in a fit of pique.
2. There are people less upset about it than you are.
Sure, you expect that there are some people happy to see you go. There are always going to be people that you’ve butted heads with; personally, ministerially, or theologically. Some of them might have even been working behind the scenes to get rid of you. It can be hard to see those people week in and week out, wondering if under their smile and handshake lies smug satisfaction at a job well done. I’m not talking about those people, though. I’m talking about the surprising majority of people who really just don’t care that much. These are the people that you shook hands with and exchanged pleasantries after the service. They gave vague compliments on sermons or services and carried on with their lives. They were fans, but not followers. They were the ones who, as Lenny said in season three, episode 24 of The Simpsons, were “well-wishers in that they don’t wish you any specific harm.” The fact is that in any given congregation, most people are more bonded to each other and the church as a whole than they are to you. And that’s healthy for them and hard on your ego. It may also be the part that hurts the most.
3. You’re less important than you think you are.
When you’re going strong (or weak) in church ministry, it’s easy to take the weight of the world on your shoulders. You fret over every message or song or service or event. You comb through numbers and struggle with what you can do differently to improve them. When things are going well, you rejoice and take credit. When they go pear-shaped, you take the blame on yourself. It’s hard not to, because that’s what everyone around you seems to be saying. You pour yourself to the people you minister to, and you pour yourself into the programs you have responsibility for, because what happens with them is on you. And then it’s not. And life goes on. You watch programs go on with out you, and people keep meeting, and growing, and learning about God without you. And the service doesn’t fall apart without your guidance. You start to wonder why you were even there at all.
4. Letting go is harder than you expect.
When leadership changes hands, whether between two paid pastors, or to a volunteer, things change. It’s inevitable. People have different visions and different skill sets. One of the worst things about staying at a church you used to work at is watching things be done differently. It’s one thing to think about not being in charge anymore, it’s another to have to see the reality of it. Programs you set up are dismantled. People make mistakes that you wouldn’t have. New leaders make decisions that you disagree with, and you can’t stop them. You have to learn all over again how to be a follower—a servant. Continuing to serve as a volunteer in a ministry you used to run means swallowing a lot of pride. It’s hard on the digestive system, but good for the soul.
5. Your legacy is not what you think it is.
When you know a transition is coming, you work hard to make sure you’re leaving things healthy and running as smoothly as possible. You may work on polishing tech and leaving a great setup that will serve the church well. You may work to develop the volunteers you had to carry on after you. You may set up program structures and guidelines designed to keep going well after you’re gone. You may do all those things, and find that they’re turned around in weeks. The things that you thought would endure, don’t. At the same time, though, some of the things that you thought wouldn’t, do. Turns of phrase you used, or little bits of lessons you taught will stay in people’s hearts and on their lips. Moments you spent together turn into foundational building blocks of a growing faith. More than that, though, you see that how you deal with leaving becomes your legacy. People remember your actions more than your words. How you leave may have more of a lasting impact that anything you did before.
It’s easy to give lip-service to the idea that it’s God’s church (or program, or ministry), but seeing the truth of it brings a new perspective. It really isn’t about us. Life really does go on. The biggest thing you learn through it though, the secret #6, is that it’s an opportunity to grow in grace. If you can do it, if you can reign in your pride and learn to serve again—if you can stand to be seen by your people as less than you were before, you can be more. I know that I’ve matured more through this process than I ever thought possible, and the church God gives us to next will be blessed through it. They’ll find a pastor that’s less attached to himself and more attached to them. They’ll find a pastor who knows that being humbled isn’t the worst thing in the world. They’ll find a pastor who knows himself better, and knows better the God whose shoulders everything really rests on. He’ll become more because I’ve become less.
It’s been a long time coming, but The Art of Being Broken will be available for purchase June 15, 2015.
Four years ago when I started writing it, this was a different book. I was a different person. In a way, I’m grateful for the 3 year hiatus my writing took while I was at Cornerstone Wesleyan. During that time, I published a book of devotionals for worship teams, which led praise teams together through the Gospel of John, prompting them to take a deeper look at their ministry together. That process gave me confidence in my writing, and helped me learn a lot about putting a book together for publishing. The experience was invaluable as I prepared The Art of Being Broken for print.
More than that, though, I grew as a person and a pastor. When I started writing this book four years ago, it had a very different focus. Really, it boiled down almost entirely to “Don’t be fake. If you’re messed up, be authentically messed up so that people can know the real you.” There is definitely still an element of that, but it evolved so much. Part of that was becoming convinced that God wants more for us than authentic brokenness. He wants to take our brokenness and turn it into holiness. He wants to take our wounds and mess and broken pieces and turn it into art that shows his grace and love to the world in a real, authentic way.
I’m not great at self-promotion. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what I do as really good or valuable. This book though, I believe is excellent. That feels really weird to say, but I think that if you sit down to read it, you’ll find that it speaks to your heart. Maybe you’ll find God speaking to your heart through it.
What if everything isn’t fine?
What if there is life outside of our shells?
What if there is beauty under our masks?
What if there is healing beyond brokenness?
What if we could see the image of God in ourselves?
What if God’s art is made from our broken pieces?
In The Art of Being Broken, Aaron Mark Reimer opens up an authentic, sometimes awkward, occasionally hilarious, one-way conversation about our brokenness, the things we use to cover it, and the healing that can come through exposing it.